Those who tell and sell stories for a living are familiar with the three-act dramatic structure, in its most basic form a distinct arc: inciting incident, conflict, resolution. The start of the pandemic in 2020 set in motion a global drama that brought about upheaval, innovation, resilience, and resolve in children’s publishing in 2021. Entering 2022, the question remains: will this year bring a resolution?
For this survey of children’s publishing professionals, we aimed to create a snapshot of current issues and concerns across the industry as 2022 gets underway. In last year’s survey, it was impossible not to detect a note of caution. It would be understandable if the events of the past few years had led to burnout. However, in 2022 publishers report a renewed commitment and a sense of gratitude for the way dedicated colleagues pulled together to press forward with the important work of creating books for children.
Multiple publishers described as “heroic” the efforts of largely unsung colleagues in the operations divisions of their companies, tasked with making sure that books could be printed and delivered during the global supply chain back-up. Despite the uncertainty of 2021, Jon Anderson, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, says he has been “awed” by the way his colleagues were able to rally and deliver “the highest net sales revenue in our division’s history.” His optimism is not unique. This is an industry very much looking forward, eyes on a brightening horizon.
As the pandemic Act III continues toward its resolution, here’s a look at the road ahead for children’s publishers in 2022 and beyond.
On the rebound
Reflecting on the past two years, Shimul Tolia, founder and CEO of Little Bee Books, summarized matters this way: “2020 was about reacting. 2021 was about stability. 2022 is about growth.” She’s not alone in this assessment of the pandemic’s first two acts or in her projections for a stronger year ahead.
“Our title count is increasing by nearly 20%” in 2022, says Megan Tingley, executive v-p and publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. “In the past couple of years, there were some efforts we had to put on the back burner just to keep up with the demands of the pandemic. Now, we have built a strong foundation with an expanded team and resources and are poised for growth.” She cites a new imprint, partnerships, and plans for “maximizing our Disney acquisition,” which took place just before the start of the pandemic, as part of the upward trajectory.
At Simon & Schuster, school and library sales are expected to be back “fully at 2019 levels” this year, according to Anderson. Book fairs started a rebound in the last quarter of 2021, PW reported at the end of the year. Overall, kids and YA sales were up 12% by year’s end, and returns decreased by 19% compared to the previous year.
There’s an expectation that backlist will continue to perform this year. Tingley says backlist sales were up 17% in 2021, due in large part to titles such as Stamped: Racism, Anti-racism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, and Vashti Harrison’s Little Leaders series.
Lag times linger
While supply chain issues no longer dominate national headlines, they’re still top of mind for publishing executives. “Hands down the biggest challenge in 2022 is going to be simply getting books,” Anderson says. “Between capacity and staffing issues at domestic printers and shipping and port issues overseas, inventory concerns are going to dominate this year.” His company is “doing a lot of planning to try to get ahead of all the supply chain issues,” he adds, “but, inevitably, the way we used to do everything will change to some degree.”
At Little, Brown, Tingley agrees, saying that the paper and shipping costs are a higher-level concern this year than sales and the challenges of remote work.
There’s no one solution to the issue. Instead, publishers report that their agile, problem-solving production and operations departments have come up with strategies that work for the particular books and lists of their imprints. At Penguin’s Kokila imprint, v-p and publisher Namrata Tripathi says her teams “have been incredibly creative in trying to work out solutions so the rest of us can remain focused on the work of creating the best books we can with our authors and illustrators.”
While being a smaller, “scrappy” publisher is an advantage on many fronts, when it comes to supply chain, Tolia says, it’s harder to compete with the economies of scale that bigger publishers can rely on. Planning for seasonal titles is especially tricky given that the buffer time built into printing schedules has expanded from days into weeks.
As with last year, the watchwords across the industry appear to be agile and nimble when it comes to dealing with supply chain, printing, and production issues.
The shape of things
Responding to a world in which bookstore browsing was heavily curtailed and library budgets were paused or cut back, several publishers report that expanding their offerings in different formats has helped to diversify and shore up product lines. At Lerner Publishing, executive v-p and editor-in-chief Andy Cummings says, “We’re steadily investing in converting more of our books into audiobooks and creating content in different formats.” Citing the increased demand for audiobooks and e-books with audio, the company has tripled its investment in audio in the past three years. The Lerner Maker Lab, a database of hands-on projects, is one example of a new content format accessible both to library makerspaces and at-home learners.
At HarperCollins Children’s Books, v-p and associate publisher Jean McGinley says that growth in audio reflects a recognition of the way readers across a variety of demographics are consuming media today, adding that the goal is to produce content that aligns with “consumer behavior.”
Still, there are types of content and reading experiences that remain best in the traditional book form. “There’s nothing like seeing and feeling and touching the physical book,” says Ginee Seo, children’s publishing director at Chronicle Books. “It can’t be replicated.” Producing beautiful, visually appealing books remains central to the publisher’s raison d’être. “We put so much into producing books that will be a pleasure to hold,” she adds. “That tactile experience is hard to replace.”
Christopher Myers, publisher of the Make Me a World imprint at Random House Children’s Books, concurs. “Books have a magic to them that can’t be paralleled,” he says. “You don’t take an e-book to a signing.”
For some publishers, licensed books turned out to be a bright spot in 2021. “While licenses tied to movies have been a tremendous challenge in this environment,” Anderson says, “our licenses tied to TV and streaming offerings have been doing wonderfully.” He notes that the partnership between S&S Children’s and CoComelon, the popular preschool show that started on YouTube, has been one of the strongest licensing launches in the company’s history.
At Little Bee, Tolia says that while bookstores lost foot traffic during the pandemic, mass market outlets such as Costco became prime locations for parents to pick up some of their licensed lines, such as their Crayola coloring and activity books. These titles remained strong even as less-known licensed lines struggled with discoverability.
McGinley says that platform-driven licensed books are an area of growth at Harper, with brands that began on YouTube or centered on gaming personalities extending their lists into new territory. Some examples include FGTeeV publishing by YouTube family gaming sensation FGTeeV; Popular MMOs Presents by Pat + Jen, the stars of Minecraft-inspired channel PopularMMOs; and The Game Master by YouTube stars Matt and Rebecca Zamolo, authors and creators of the mega-popular Game Master Network.
BookTok boom and book fair revival
Marketing approaches adopted during the pandemic pivot have proven to be effective and permanent for many publishers. Chronicle has introduced more of its highly visual books with video, using editing tools to mimic the effect of cover treatments such as foil for a more dimensional experience, Seo says. The use of digital galleys in place of physical copies is now widespread. This practice has “allowed us to reach a wider audience, absent of geographic barriers and restrictions based on printed quantity,” says Allison Verost, senior v-p at Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. “We’ve found that we can be just as impactful in meeting our goals with digital galleys, if not more so, and many of our contacts even prefer them. Not to mention digital galleys are far more sustainable!”
But the physical ARC still has its place. “We still create a limited number of ARCs and galleys for our chapter books or middle grade fiction titles and send them when they are requested for sales or marketing,” Tolia says. “Sending PDFs of our picture books has been successful for us, but we will go back to printing f&g’s for conferences and sales materials when needed.”
Last year, Harper introduced VoiceGalley, advanced audio editions. McGinley describes them as “a great alternative to physical and digital galleys” that help reduce screen time while also reducing the company’s carbon footprint, noting that they’ve been well received by advance reviewers.
With in-person author events paused and the emergence of “Zoom fatigue” as a very real phenomenon, publishers have continued to lean more heavily into social media. “The YA market has been booming, thanks to BookTok,” Tingley says. She cites Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s The Inheritance Games, Kerri Maniscalco’s Kingdom of the Wicked series, and Holly Black’s Folk of the Air series as BookTok success stories, but also credits the platform for bolstering the backlist.
McGinley says that working with creatives in the BookTok space to “make the titles they love go viral” has been one of the positives of the past few years. Equally, it has been an ideal platform for connecting authors such as Angie Thomas and Adam Silvera directly with their fans. But, she adds, Harper has gone beyond the BookTok community and launched book campaigns with more general lifestyle influencers. “We’ve gotten some boosts that way.”
BookTok isn’t the answer for all demographics, though. Marketing for a younger audience continues to be challenging. “Outreach to educators/librarians has been hampered the most by lack of in-person events and the limitations on our ability to schedule in-person school visits, which are so important to building and sustaining authors’ careers,” Tingley says.
Despite the obstacles, schools have been “heroic” in their attempts to take advantage of online events, according to Seo. Virtual author appearances have reached schools that previously couldn’t afford to bring authors in, expanding access. But the return to school has been uneven across districts and states, and consensus seems that it’s likely to be next fall before the pace will pick up for in-person school events.
Book fairs have traditionally been a big part of the equation of marketing for younger audiences. “They’re a great hub for kid-to-kid recommendations,” McGinley says. After a tough year in 2020 and the beginning of 2021, they’re beginning to rebound.
“I have no reason to think they won’t be back, especially with the welcome news that Literati has purchased the Follett Book Fair business,” Anderson says. “We’ve already seen promising signs. I suspect this will only accelerate in 2022.”
Noting that he’s not directly involved in the fairs, Scholastic v-p and editorial director David Levithan says, “It’s been extraordinary to see how they’ve been welcomed back into schools, and to have seen how adaptable everyone has been to creating the same fun environment for kids to choose their own books while keeping the experience safe for everyone involved.” With all the creative thinking that’s gone into marketing and outreach in the past few years, he adds, “I think the good news is that when the pandemic ends, we’re going to have so many more options for promoting our books and engaging our readers than we ever did before.”
Until we meet again
With in-person conferences on pause for so long, publishers have adapted with smaller virtual gatherings that have offered a lot of advantages. Publishers with an international scope have found that communicating with colleagues overseas now requires far less effort. “In April, we’re publishing our first list from our nonfiction, U.K.-based imprint, Neon Squid, and communication across the ocean has never been easier,” Verost says.
Several publishers reported that virtual work has strengthened business partnerships outside of their own houses. “Doing sales conference remotely has given us the opportunity to take advantage of working with partners in the U.K.,” Seo says.
The ease of setting up virtual meetings has put potential collaborations on a faster track. “We have more frequent, timely conversations with our partners now,” Cummings notes, adding that there’s no need to wait for a conference to move discussions forward.
Despite these pluses, most publishers look forward to the resumption of trademark industry events. “We miss the shows,” Seo says. “We can’t wait to go back to them.”
Big fairs such as Bologna have a value that can’t be replaced for some publishers. “For a small business like us,” Tolia explains,
“it’s really helpful to have that face-to-face contact. When we put ourselves out there, it helps get ideas flowing.” The result? Deals are made.
“I do think there’s a longing for the human connection of tours, festivals, and conferences,” Levithan says. “But there will also be less FOMO [fear of missing out]” in the future because “there will be ways to attend all of these kinds of events without having to travel.”
McGinley says that although conferences and trade shows will certainly be back—albeit in a somewhat scaled-back form—she anticipates that in the future the company will go into them with very intentional goals.
With Bologna just a month away, some publishers have made tentative commitments to attend. “Pending anything unforeseen, our intention is to join our S&S U.K. colleagues” at the fair,” Anderson says.
Changing practice, changing culture
All the publishers surveyed report that their offices will remain hybrid, at least for the foreseeable future. The pandemic has “revealed that we can accomplish our business goals virtually if we have to,” McGinley says. “But it’s also revealed what we miss about working together in person. Hybrid offers the best of both worlds.”
At Little, Brown, Tingley has reached a similar conclusion. “One of my biggest concerns at the beginning of the pandemic was that our key decision-making meetings—acquisition, jacket, marketing—would be challenging to conduct virtually,” she recalls. “We were used to having in-person meetings with a lively exchange of ideas and opinions. We’ve found that these meetings have actually improved in the virtual format. I think some people feel more comfortable speaking freely on camera rather than in person, and the virtual format allows us to include more people as there are no space limitations.”
As the pandemic has worn on, an increasing number of employees across the industry have never experienced the in-office environment. “We’ve had so many employees join us in the last 23 months who have never set foot in 120 Broadway,” Verost says. “We’ve learned that our culture is our people, not our physical surroundings.”
On the other hand, Tingley notes, training new hires and creating collegial bonds with these new team members is more challenging online.
The virtual office has offered a number of unexpected benefits. “Zoom has democratized our meetings,” Levithan says. “Instead of the weird conference-table hierarchy, we’re now in an environment where everyone is on equal footing. That’s a plus.”
“The pandemic forced us to think differently about how we work,” Tripathi says. “Or rather, it forced us to acknowledge what many always knew to be true—that we could create a more equitable and accessible industry by allowing for remote work, that events could and should always be more inclusive. We have to work hard to maintain our communities and always need to be thinking globally, because we’re so much more connected than we had allowed ourselves to believe.”
Though remote work has significant benefits, many publishers reported searching for a way to replace serendipitous chance encounters in the office.
“I’m personally focused on how to replicate the interdepartmental casual conversation and learnings that often occur in the hallway or the elevator,” Verost says. “How can we ensure employees are being exposed to all areas of the business beyond what is in their job description?”
Across the board, publishers report that promoting work-life balance has come into focus like never before. “Creating a working environment that meets our colleagues’ needs” is a top priority, McGinley notes.
Beyond the day-to-day of virtual or hybrid operations, there’s a bigger sea change happening, according to Myers. Back in his father’s day, he says, deals were made over the legendary “publisher’s lunch.” (Myers’s father, Walter Dean Myers, was a children’s author whose vaunted career spanned five decades starting in 1968.) It was an insider business with limited access, its epicenter located solidly in Manhattan.
The pandemic has offered an opportunity to “shake things up,” Myers adds. In part due to the “narrowness” of its geography, he says, the industry has suffered from “a sameness that yielded a sameness in taste.” Now, there’s “a bounty of new kinds of stories and new ways of thinking about stories that couldn’t have happened before,” and this structural shift in the industry aligns with a greater societal shift. “We’ve learned from this pandemic time that we are hungry to reach outside our own bubbles and seek connection in the world outside ourselves. There’s a desire to learn about those who don’t look like us. The need for story and the kind of community that story can provide has gotten bigger.”
Levithan sees the expansion of viewpoints from beyond previous confines already having an effect. Increasing diversity in children’s books is “something many people have been working toward for decades,” he says. “But the stop-the-presses focus that came out of 2020 is now yielding extraordinary results.” More than half of Scholastic’s 2023 fiction list is by BIPOC authors, he adds, and an even higher percentage is by BIPOC and/or LGBTQ authors and authors with different physical abilities. “The landscape of our list looks much more like the landscape of our readers, and that is absolutely a change for the better.”
Now more than ever
After years of uncertainty, there’s a strong industry-wide resolve to continue to provide kids with books that are eye opening, life changing, and maybe even life saving. The recent upheaval offered two “great gifts,” Myers says. First, it has reestablished that children’s authors, illustrators, and publishers are “vital, necessary,” and second, that “story has never been as close to our personal landscape” as it is now. “The importance of what we do never fails for me,” he continues. “The vagaries of the publishing business rise and fall, the tides ebb and wane, but the need is ever present.”
Tolia reflects that at a time when parents and children needed them most, Little Bee books—centered on diversity, acceptance, anti-bullying, empowerment and awareness—were the right tool at the right time. The Whatifs, a picture book exploring anxiety, was a particularly strong seller.
McGinley says, “As children’s publishing professionals, we can see how incredibly important it is to create tools for kids’ social and emotional development.”
Overcoming the myriad challenges of 2020 and 2021 seems to have sharpened the focus on mission for many publishers.
“Back in the office I have a Post-it on my computer that says, ‘Who is this for?,’ ” Tripathi says. “When you make books for children and young adults, that vital question reestablishes your sense of purpose pretty quickly.”
Centering on children’s needs—for stories, education, community, recognition, and more—appears to have brought the industry’s core values into clear view.
“What the virus has taught us is that books are an incredibly important form of connection,” Seo says. “At a time when everyone has been glued to their screens, they have been such a respite. Books are never going to go away.”
Joanne O’Sullivan is a journalist, author, and editor in Asheville, N.C.